Popular payments app Paytm was today removed from Google’s Play Store for “repeated” violations of its gambling policies. The app has been restored as of Friday evening, but Paytm First Games, a separate app which offers fantasy gaming, remains absent from the Play Store.

Google said this morning that it removes apps that offer unregulated gambling apps and facilitate sports betting. Apps that leads customers to an external “real money” gaming website are also prohibited, along with real money games, fantasy games, and gambling apps are also prohibited. The company said it notifies developers of violations and removes the app until changes are made.

In an interview to CNBC-TV18, Paytm CEO Vijay Shekhar Sharma said the Paytm app was removed over cashbacks for the Cricket Premier League, which Google said amounted to gambling. The cashbacks were offered to users who collected a certain number of cricket-themed scratch cards. “Google thinks this is gambling, or a casino, this is bullshit of a different degree,” he said.

Sharma said Google reached out to Paytm only to notify it that the app was removed, and had previously reached out only regarding Paytm First Games. Earlier today, Paytm said it temporarily removed the cashback feature to comply with Google’s policies.

The ban comes a day before the inaugural match of the Indian Premier League 2020, which is scheduled to kick off Saturday evening. IPL typically leads to a surge in fantasy and online gaming. Originally scheduled for March, this season has been delayed at least twice due to the pandemic. Fantasy gaming platforms typically depend on real-world matches, since winning (partly) depends on the real-world performance of individual players.

Google “unilaterally” made the decision to pull Paytm, Sharma said, adding that. “Google is not allowing us to acquire new customers”. He added that if Paytm’s cashback violated policy, the same rule should be applied to other players. In case of “repeated policy violations, we may take more serious action which may include terminating Google Play Developer accounts,” Google’s VP for product, Android security and privacy Suzanne Frey said.

Google’s own UPI payments app Google Pay directly competes with Paytm, though Google Pay is a clear leader with roughly 40% of the UPI payments market share, followed by Walmart-owned PhonePe. Paytm has a small market share in UPI payments.

Fantasy gaming body approached Google, Dream11 has no Play Store app

Federation of Indian Fantasy Sports (FIFS), a “self-regulatory” body for fantasy gaming, of which Dream11 is the only founding member, claims it approached Google on the basis of complaints received by multiple members. It said that Google is selectively allowing Paytm and other large companies to distribute and list real money games on Play Store.

FIFS said this is unfair to its other members, who comply with Google Play Store guidelines and rules. “We also insisted that if a level playing field is not reestablished, we may be forced to seek any other advice including legal action,” the body said.

Dream11, perhaps the most popular fantasy gaming company in India, which is also the title sponsor for this year’s IPL, is not available on the Play Store; instead their app has to be directly downloaded, using an APK, from their website. An Android Package Kit (APK) is the file format for Android apps (much like .exe for Windows), and allows apps to be directly installed into a user’s device. Such downloads are a common way for app developers to circumvent Play Store’s guidelines, which prohibit fantasy gaming apps outside the US. Fantasy Akhada and MyTeam11 are not on the Google Play Store either.

In a public statement, FIFS thanked Google for “re-establishing a level playing field” and urged it to allow on fantasy gaming apps on the Play Store.

Legal status of anti-gambling and fantasy gaming in India

Anti-gambling laws in India prohibit games of chance, and in most cases allow games which are predominantly based on skill. Indian states can draft their own laws regulating gaming and gambling, since they are state subjects. Most states, however, still don’t have any provisions that take into account online gambling. Their laws are broad based on the colonial era Public Gambling Act, 1867. Most states regulate gambling – both online and offline – based on whether gambling itself is allowed in the state, and whether it is a game of skill or chance.

Both rummy and poker, which involve real money, have been deemed as games of skill in some states. In the Satyanarayana Case, the Supreme Court had ruled that rummy was not entirely a game of chance. The West Bengal Gambling and Prize Competitions Act, 1957 excludes bridge, poker and rummy from its definition of “gambling”.

Meanwhile, multiple high courts have ruled that Dream11 is a game of skill, and not chance, and hence does not amount to gambling. This has been backed by the Supreme Court as well, which has dismissed multiple appeals against Dream11 being ruled a game of skill.

Most recently, Andhra Pradesh declared online gambling illegal, and announced jail terms for those caught playing or offering online rummy and poker, via the AP Gaming Act, 1974. However, the state government explicitly left fantasy games and leagues outside of its purview.